Old White Counterpanes
( Originally Published 1919 )
Again I have been darning a coverlet, this time a fine linen, creamed with age. It was made for my great-grandmother, woven under her careful direction in East Tennessee when the nineteenth century was in its first quarter. I know even about the nimble black fingers that embroidered the design, for they belonged to " Mammy Fanny," who, later, came to Nashville with the "young Mistress," my grandmother, and was my own mother's special nurse. A very close bond existed there, I think, for all my life I remember hearing stories about this tall, dignified negress who was really a personality, and who wore her bandanna handkerchief bound around her head with almost Oriental pride. And so kind to the children she was, so devoted to them, that, when offered her freedom and a chance to go to Liberia, she absolutely refused to leave the little things she had loved and "raised." I know that, if I had been a Northerner at that time, I should, also, have been a mad, impassioned abolitionist, otherwise my present liberalism means nothing; but I cannot help knowing, too, that the South held much happiness and frank affection and old memories that are very sacred. That is one reason why I love my counter-pane; the other is because it is beautiful, well, perhaps rather engagingly pretty, with its somewhat sketchy embroidery, a little after the manner of an ancient "lazy daisy" stitch, the whole effect being that of a wandering vine-pattern and a central basket of flowers that is very much like the designs Stiegel etched on his toddy-mugs and flip-glasses. Unfortunately photography will reproduce only pat-terns standing in bolder relief, so you must take its prettiness on trust until you see it upon my carved Empire bed. In the meantime I shall be bleaching it: when the dog-days are done and all danger of mildew is past, I shall put it out on the grass and let the bright suns of early autumn and the racing winds whiten it magically for me. First you wet the web, of course, and then, when it is dry, you wet it again; and wise ladies tell me that this old-world way is infinitely superior to any amount of soap, or even what we call hereabouts "elbow-juice." It is better really than the freezing-bleaching process, for that is apt to weaken the strands of the fabric. My cover-let and my Empire bed are about the same age, and they will go "companionably "together. I've worked so hard to dress that bed properly ! You see, so many quite charming old beds suddenly lose this charm of theirs because the right things are not put on them; sometimes a counterpane that makes the bed look as if an old lady were masquerading in her . granddaughter's clothes. Maybe that comparison is n't worth much nowadays in our present terms of fashion, but you understand, don't you? And then, when the coverlet is all right, the pillow-shams are all wrong. That mine are right cnmes by the luck of discovery, for I found the pattern in a little old house way up in the Vermont hills; and because so many people have asked me just how they were made, and I think you might like to know, too, I am passing the directions on to you. I made mine from very fine longcloth, though I think linen would be better, and fine-meshed dimity a pretty alternative. The length is thirty-five inches,- the" width twenty_ and a quarter, of course, these measurements are not rigid, they can be adapted to any size pillow you wish, -- and the adornment is little, frilly ruffles, ruffles gathered in the centre and spaced three inches apart. The gathering of the first frill comes at the edge of the sham which makes it a little less bulky in effect; and when they are freshly ironed they are the prettiest, quaintest things you can imagine. But they are hard to do up; sometimes I think I'll get mvself a "o-offering-iron." Like "dear Mrs. Tiggywinkle's," you know. Don't you remember, in that charming tale, how site took little Lucie's pinny, "and ironed it and goffered it and shook out the frills"? As I have a house that much resembles Mrs. Tiggywinkle's, I think it would be most appropriate.
There is infinite variety in these old white counterpanes. L has three delightful old-fashioned beds,-and an entirely different type of spread rests on each one. The first again I rail at the inadequacies of photography,-for half -of its fine- loveliness does not show -- is one of the most charming, intricate pieces. of needle-craft that I have ever seen, worthy even of L 's Hepplewhite room, and that is high praise. To-day, as I looked at it, the dear lady who had quilted it said, "I wish I had a penny for every stitch I took in it, and I felt that if she had, she would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Those tiny, tiny stitches! Do you suppose we shall ever again rise to such apotheoses of sewing? And the design has an interesting story. It was drawn a number of years before it was quilted, by an. Hungarian exile, "a follower of Kossuth, who had drifted to this country, and who turned his native talent of music into a profession, and gave lessons to support himself. He drew a number of these patterns for his pupils, . and this one embodies both America and Hungary. In the centre is the eagle of his adopted country, with the thirteen stars above and "E Pluribus Unum" below, and in the corners is an Hungarian motif. Above and below the eagle are graceful cornucopias, but whether they were symbolic of the plenty that he found in his adopted country or of what he hoped for his native land, tradition has never told me.
The second is a quilted counterpane, too, and this adorns such a slender, fluted mahogany "four-poster" with a field canopy. The work is less fine, but, it is very nearly as handsome; if I liked to apply so very modern a word as "stunning" to an old counter-pane, I think I might call it, that. It is, also, a very unusual type, and very attractive in the manner in which the padded pattern stands out against the quilted surface. It began life way, way up in these Northern hills, and its owner, before L bought it, was, in spite of the possession of this lovely bit of age, most mid-Victorian in her tastes. Her house was adorned with the many, many things she had made and painted and decorated; but they were her idea of beauty and she was very happy in them, and, since innocent human happiness is one of the ends of life, I, for one, shan't grudge them to her. You know, often in the countryside you will still find such odd embellishments: roses made out of leather, and so on, which are, I suppose, the rural equivalent of the gilded plaster lion; once, even, I saw one of the framed coffin-plates that everybody insists are found only in stories. I almost wept with moy when I Beheld this vindication of literature; I did n't want to own it, of course, but I felt so grateful once to have witnessed this concrete symbol of Victorian gloom.
As for L---'s third coverlet, I am not sure that, it is not my greatest favorite of all, the design is so graceful, so symmetrical. It is what is known as a candle-wicking spread, in other words, a counterpane made usually of a homespun linen (or cotton sometimes), with the tufted design worked in candle-wicking or a full cotton yarn. Now I dislike more than any-thing else to be academic; I dipped candles that I might tell you about them, and I am "drawing-in" a rug after an old pattern so that I may be really intelligent about it and practical in my advice. But I simply cannot stop, my dear Friends -in Collecting, to make a candle-wicking spread so that I shall be qualified to tell you exactly how it is done. How-ever, I have been talking to past mistresses of this art and taking experimental stitches, just enough to keep my counsel from being pure theory. I think that the task must have been easier in bygone times, for then candle-wicking was more durable and firmer; the stuff they sell nowadays being quite "no account." And it will have to be vigorously bleached, for it is rather a dark ecru; at least all that I have been able to get is very far from white. Then you will need your counterpane carefully marked with a chosen design, this, I am told, is the most difficult part, an embroidery or darning-needle with an eye large enough to take in a thread of candle-wicking which must be used doubled, and endless patience! If the cloth, whether linen or cotton, is unbleached, the work will be easier, for then the threads will not have to be tied before shearing. The process really is not unlike "drawing-in" a rug, if you have ever done that; the weight of the wicking holds it in place, you see. I meant to gather more information for you: to walk across our blue watered ribbon of a river into our next-door state I always feel a queer little thrill of surprise at being able to be in two states almost simultaneously! and talk to an old lady there who has made a number of these counterpanes. I have never seen them, but I know that they must be attractive, for she herself is so very pleasant, and so full of the moy of life that, over seventy, she seems about fifty-five. But, instead, I went to an old-furniture sale, and I know you will forgive me when I tell you that I bought three lovely pieces of old glass for fifteen cents, and a prettily turned light-stand for seventy-five, and two silver-plated cups of chaste design and beautiful engraving for so little that I am ashamed to tell you must how little it was, although the prices were already set and I had nothing whatever to do with them. My one comfort was that the uninteresting modern pieces were selling for such magnificent sums; it made me feel less guilty. And, as I brought my treasures home, another happiness was mine, for I was lighted by a round, pale moon just climbing over the horizon. Personally I like a great bubble-moon walking through the higb heavens with dignity; I had not the faintest desire for Merlin's power to hurry her, scud-ding, through the clouds. Rather I delighted in her calm, and at home, when I had polished my cups, I took them out of doors to see how much more silver the silver moonlight made them.
Moonlight, broad stretch of meadows and such peaee!
And I loved my little house, the little house full of my dear things, with its background of black velvet shadows, its vine-trimmed porch, its banded phlox. That's what I mean by the joy of collecting: it weaves such a pleasant pattern of life for you.
But why do I speak of these coverlets as all in the past? E made one only a year or so ago, and here it is, an infinitely laborious counterpane, copied, or perhaps I should say modeled, on the old one that follows. It took her six months to do it; of course, I suppose, she did n't work night and day on it, but I fancy it was pretty steady "pick-up" work. She tufted the centre design first, and then worked the connecting lines, corners and festoons. The fringe, she confessed, she found the hardest part of all, for she took one whole summer doing it, finally getting a stick and knotting the wicking over and over, rather after the fashion of a fisherman making nets. We marveled at her when it was done, but so far as I know she has never had the flattery of imitation. Most of its think it looks like a life-work. But then
E is a specialist in coverlets; she has so many charming ones: three candle-wicking and three others.
Of course, I am always hoping that some day I shall have one of these tufted candle-wicking spreads of my own, but I have not yet found one with the necessary three dimensions, by which I mean a spread that measures itself at once to my bed, my fancy, and my pocketbook. At times,you know, you can get such bargains; I have seen good ones sold for ten, and sometimes even five dollars. Once I bought one for a small bed for a dollar and a quarter. The pattern was not done in the thickest tufting, but really quite an engaging eagle set in circles was out-lined in the centre. And when you think how much you have to pay for must a plain seersucker spread, you may agree with me that I got a bargain.
And I also desire one like this counterpane of E 's done in flat, unsheared candle-wicking, so that the effect is almost that of cross-stitch. It is really very charming, with the beauty of a well-done sampler, and a little irregularity that guarantees the genuineness of its handiwork. Moreover, it is one of the oldest that I have known to be found hereabouts. Down in one corner, if you look very closely, you can sec the initials of its worker, L. D. D., and the date, 1822. I have seen one dated 1$15, but nothing earlier, and, as it is the older ones that are usually dated, I have formed a theory that the candle-wicking spread was a fashion of the very early nineteenth century. At least, I have never found any evidence to convince me that they were made in the eighteenth.
But the embroidered counterpane was undoubtedly made then, for it is full of the feeling of the delicate, charming "chinoiserie" that so much dominated domestic art in those days. Deepened by time, it is almost ecru in tone, this lightly quilted foundation of linen, and the flowers are embroidered on it in fine wools: deep roses, greens, yellows, and blues. I was never more surprised than when E pulled it out of its hiding-place. She said afterwards that she had always remembered "seeing it round," though she had n't the faintest idea of its early history. To have so charming a possession and not parade it! For it is as lovely as the sprigged surface of a fine porcelain cup made long and long ago; an "Orientals" of cloth delightful as Cesar Cui's music. I know I should have made it a subject of conversation, even if nobody was talking antiques. You can al-ways stamp your foot and speak of guns, you know.
In the past these hand-wrought household gods were very close to the hearts of their happy owners, I think, and history bears me out. In reading Governor Winthrop's Diary I ran across this quaint, illuminating passage. "A godly woman of the church of Boston, dwelling sometimes in London, brought with her a parcel of linnen of great value, which she set her heart too much upon, and had been at charge to have it all newly washed and curiously folded pressed, and so left it in press in her parlour over night; she had a negro maid went into the room very late and let fall some snuff of the candle upon the linnen, so as by the morning all the linnen was burned to a tinder, and the boards underneath, and some stools and a part of the wainscot burnt, and never perceived by any in the house, tho' some lodged in the chamber overhead, and no ceiling between; but it pleased God that the loss of this linnen did her much good, both in taking off her heart from worldly comforts, and in preparing her for a far greater affliction by the untimely death of her husband who was slain not long after at the Isle of Providence." The "preparing" loss of that cherished linen has always seemed to me quite as pathetic as amusing.
And now I am come to my last counterpane. I think I am very like a small child; I invariably save the icing of my cake for the end. And this time you are to share my pleasure with me. . I have never seen, nor expect to see, so beautiful a spread as this last one I am showing you. The delicate, cream-toned linen on which the design is worked has a little line running through it, and is a delightful piece of old hand-wcaving. It is much larger than any others I have found, and the pattern is thicker, fuller, more impressive in its work. When I hung it up to have it photographed, it had all the beauty of a fine, antique bas-relief. And it came to me in the most romantic way. For once before I made public lamentation that I had never found a candle-wicking spread to suit my Empire bed, and some months later I got a letter from a little old lady miles and miles away in a state farther south. who asked me if I would like to buy this one; that it did not fit any bed she owned, and that she had nobody to leave it to when she died. Later she wrote me its history. Now, first I must tell you that Brigham Hill, with the old white house atop of it and its file of maple trees, lies across that blue, dividing river perhaps two miles, as the crow flies, from where I live. The linen of the counterpane had been woven by the little old lady's great-grandmother Brigbam, the design drawn by Polly Hutchinson and the tufted embroidery done by Lydia Brigliam! All of these surnames are still to be found in this little, nearly forgotten village; the old counter= pane had must wandered home again. Is n't that a collecting coincidence for you? But it wouldn't fit my Empire bed; it was too large, and now a more fortunate friend owns it. Again a tragedy of the third dimension!